updated 7/14/2009 12:51:08 AM ET 2009-07-14T04:51:08

Pro-government tribesmen killed 23 militants in clashes in Pakistan's volatile northwest in the latest violence between tribal militias and Taliban insurgents, a government official said Tuesday.

The fighting took place in the village of Ambar in the Mohmand region, part of the lawless tribal belt along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan where top Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding.

Syed Ahmad Jan, a senior regional administrator, said local tribal militia asked the militants to leave the area late Monday. The militants refused and opened fire, sparking a gun battle that was still raging Tuesday morning, Jan said.

Pakistan's government has encouraged tribesman in the semiautonomous frontier region to form local militias — known as lashkars — to repel Taliban militants blamed for attacks in Pakistan and in neighboring Afghanistan. The militias carry out patrols and have been pursuing remnants of Taliban who had tried to expand their influence into the area.

Such groups have been set up in several regions but face stiff Taliban resistance.

Pakistan's military also has carried out operations of its own against militants in the volatile northwest, and is readying another major offensive against Taliban fighters in the South Waziristan region of the tribal belt.

In central Pakistan on Monday, an explosion destroyed a house used as a religious seminary, killing at least nine people — seven of them children — and leaving many others in critical condition in a reminder that security has deteriorated in areas well beyond the country's northwest region by Afghanistan.

Police said they had evidence the home had been used as a meeting place for militants. The cause of the blast was unknown.

The U.S. strongly supports Islamabad's efforts to confront the insurgents, seeing them as a test of nuclear-armed Pakistan's resolve to tame Islamist militancy in the country.

Refugees return to Swat Valley
Also on Monday, hundreds of Pakistani refugees who spent weeks in sweltering relief camps began heading home to the battle-scarred northwest Swat Valley under a government repatriation program, traveling on buses with security escorts.

Image: Boys returning to Swat Valley
Vincent Thian  /  AP
These boys were among the hundreds of Pakistanis who left refugee camps on Monday to return to their villages in the Swat Valley.
But some refused to go back, citing security concerns and demanding promised aid, while the military tried to block thousands more returning without permission.

The government had designated Monday as the first day some of the more than 2 million people displaced during an army campaign to rid the northwestern Swat Valley of militants could return home.

The army has declared most of Swat clear of Taliban insurgents after an operation strongly backed by U.S. officials eager to see Pakistan eliminate safe havens for militants blamed for attacks on international troops in Afghanistan.

Monday's sputtering start to the repatriation program, however, showed the government's limited capacity to respond to one of its greatest-ever humanitarian challenges. Pakistan's government has had a mixed record in such crises. Last year, officials told refugees from the Bajur tribal region they could return during a cease-fire with Taliban fighters, and many did, only to see fighting resume.

Cash payments slow in coming
Several families at some refugee camps Monday said they would not go home unless they were given money, food and other government-promised aid. Each family was supposed to get 25,000 rupees ($306), but the government has had difficulties in giving out the cash.

Others also cited security worries. Many Swat militant commanders remain at large.

"It was the security reason that forced us to leave our homes, and if it is still there when we go back then we will be forced to leave our homes again," said Mohammad Rehman, 36, in a camp in Charsadda.

Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International said the government was moving too quickly in reopening Swat, a one-time tourist haven. "The army's definition of cleared zones does not necessarily translate into safe zones for civilians," said Patrick Duplat, a Refugees International advocate.

Many others, however, were desperate to go home after weeks in stifling tents.

At Charsadda, a convoy of six vehicles including buses and vans, left carrying 22 families in the afternoon. A police van provided an escort. At the Jalozai camp in the Peshawar area, 20 buses carrying 108 families took off in the morning.

'We want peace in our area'
"I am happy we are going to our home," said Sher Zaman, 60, a farmer who was staying at the Jalozai camp. "The days were rough, the weather was extremely hot for us, but we thank the government who served us well. We want peace in our area."

Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister of the North West Frontier Province, assured refugees that the government was working on re-establishing a stronger police force to help keep out the Taliban. The army has already said it expects to stay in Swat for another year.

"We have broken the back of the terrorists, they are on the run in small groups and may try to come back but I appeal to the people to identify them and inform the government and law enforcement so that they be eliminated," Hoti said during a ceremony marking the send-off at Charsadda.

While about 200,000 of the displaced were living in camps, most stayed with relatives and friends.

Journey takes several days
Thousands of them also headed back Monday but were blocked by military officials along one major road to the valley. Army officials told them only those returning from the camps under the government plan could go forward.

The return is expected to take several days. Officials said the returnees Monday would go as far as Barikot, south of Swat's main city of Mingora.

While militant activity has been mostly concentrated in Pakistan's northwest, other areas have faced their share of violence.

Monday's blast in Punjab province killed at least nine. Naeem Sadiq, an official at the hospital nearest to the blast, said some 50 wounded had arrived, many in critical condition.

Inspector Masood Ahmed at the Mian Channu police station said the explosion was at the home of a man who ran a religious seminary for children. At least 30 houses were destroyed, he said.

"The explosion caused the beams and walls of our house to collapse, and I thought a jet had attacked our house," said Madad Ali, a resident of the village.

The owner of the home has been accused of recruiting fighters to battle Western troops in Afghanistan, and police have evidence the home was a meeting point for militants, said Kamran Khan, police chief of Khanewal district, where Mian Channu lies.

There were conflicting reports on the cause of the blast, but police officer Mohammed Khizr said the remnants of six rockets and a suicide vest were found in the crater. Interior Minister Rehman Malik ruled out a suicide attack.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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